IT wasn’t the greatest show I had ever seen; it offered more emotion than deep insight, more helpless anger than real empowerment.
The Hub, Pacific Quay, Glasgow
FURTHER THAN THE FURTHEST THING
Dundee Rep Theatre
5 MINUTE THEATRE
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Yet it marked a vital moment in Glasgow’s coming-to-terms with the end of the industrial age; and 22 years on, I find myself experiencing very similar feelings, as I stand just a few hundred yards upriver from Govan, on the top floor of a vacant riverside office-block, watching the National Theatre of Scotland’s 21st-century elegy for the print newspaper industry, now reeling under the challenge of instant electronic news.
This story is closer to home for journalists, of course, so much so that I have to declare a small interest in Enquirer; I was one of the 43 journalists interviewed in the compilation of the show. And in style, this show is aeons away from the scripted high emotion of The Ship; Enquirer is another example of the 21st-century trend towards verbatim theatre, in which documentary material is presented to the audience in relatively raw form.
It’s also a promenade production, staged to a small audience who perch on desks or on piles of unsold newspapers, as a brilliantly-cast team of six Scottish actors lead them through the newspaper day, and through some set-piece interviews with named contributors, including former Scottish Sun boss Jack Irvine.
What emerges from this show, Ship-like, is a profound sense of loss – and of anger at the undervaluing of the loss – combined with a slightly frustrating lack of analytical firepower in teasing out the underlying strands of argument, and hinting at possible ways forward. Yet the NTS’s show is so shockingly timely, in its seizing of this Leveson Inquiry moment in the history of journalism, that it can hardly fail to make a major impact.
Its compiled text, pulled together by Andrew O’Hagan with directors Vicky Featherstone and John Tiffany, draws a magnificent ensemble performance from a cast who seem completely seized by the paradox of journalism, by its nobility, its grubbiness, and the extent to which it finds itself under ethical attack at its moment of greatest economic weakness. And unexpectedly, this is also a beautiful show, with subtly powerful design and a fine soundscape; and evening light pouring in over the river like a final blessing, on an industry that has helped shape our political and municipal life through most of the modern age, and may soon be with us no more.
Loss is also the theme of Zinnie Harris’s great debut play Further Than The Furthest Thing, first seen at the Traverse in 2000, and now given a stunning new production at Dundee Rep by outgoing artistic director James Brining.
Inspired by the volcanic eruption on the island of Tristan da Cunha in 1961, Harris’s play takes the loss of that homeland, and the displacement of its people to Britain, as a metaphor for the whole experience of modernity, with its fierce disruption of our relationship with the land, and its replacement of organic human relationships with the machine-like culture of contract that is one of the bedrocks of capitalism.
Twelve years on from its premiere, Further Than The Furthest Thing still strikes me as a play that has never quite had the dramaturgical attention it deserves; its dramatic impact would be even greater if it used fewer words, and trusted more in its own action.
James Brining’s final Dundee production, though – staged on a chill and magnificent watery set by Neil Warmington and consultant artist Elizabeth Ogilvie – is of breathtaking quality. John Harris’s shuddering high soprano soundscape is unforgettable; and among a fine five-strong ensemble, Ann Louise Ross gives the performance of a lifetime as Zinnie Harris’s great island heroine Mill, a woman never humbled into forgetting where she came from, or giving up her right to return.
Both Enquirer and Further Then The Furthest Thing represent plays of protest against the machine-driven world we have made for ourselves; and in that sense, they are all of a piece with the latest National Theatre Of Scotland 5 Minute Theatre event, staged on the evening of May Day, built around the theme of Protest, and featuring online streaming of miniature shows performed live or recorded in front of an audience in locations all over Scotland.
As a theme, the idea of protest seemed to unleash Scotland’s creative juices in grand style. At the domestic level, my personal favourites were the little kids from Ferryhill in Aberdeen protesting against their parents’ planned divorce, and the laconic drama from a flat in Glasgow about the woman whose boyfriend insisted on eating ice lollies in bed.
At the political level, I adored the glorious clifftop protest from Portskerra against all the regulations and charges that now threaten our basic human right to get together and entertain one another; and Kieran Hurley’s eloquent naked protest against the po-faced Perth imprisonment of the Naked Rambler.
And in the Victorian Bar at the Tron, I watched some of the shows live, as well as experiencing the rest of the event via my laptop; in a living demonstration of how technological change is shifting the nature of every form of human communication, including theatre itself.
• Enquirer runs until 13 May; Further Than The Furthest Thing until 5 May. All the 5 Minute plays will be available soon on fiveminutetheatre.com/